Finite and infinite game science: what’s the difference?

Infinite gamers have more fun

PLEASE NOTE: This is a draft of a bit of the Open Scientist Handbook. There are references/links to other parts of this work-in-progress that do not link here in this blog. Sorry. But you can also see what the Handbook will be offering soon.

The distinction between playing with an infinite game mindset and playing with a finite game mindset allows us to unpack how a scientist might bring an infinite mindset to “actual science:” to all those finite games of power and scarce resources scientists play today in the academy. This handbook is all about changing cultures in the academy. Some of these changes are steps forward into new opportunities, others are steps back into the core of how science was done before the recent neoconservative managers arrived on campus. Let’s look at two personas: one, a die-hard finite game player, and the other, a scientist deep into the infinite game.

The finite-game player takes on the role of “The Scientist”

Below are some signs you might be playing the infinite game of doing science as if this were a finite game: playing with a finite-game mindset.

  • The role of “The Scientist” is just a role. You are free to throw this aside at any time. You always have this freedom. At some point you forgot this fact.
  • By forgetting you create a necessity to this role in your life: not for science, however, but for being The Scientist.
  • Entering grad school on a fellowship, you identified avenues of influence you could tap into: you picked a famous scholar to be your committee chair and selected a hot research topic, instead of one from your own interests.
  • You had three papers published by the time you completed your PhD. At least one of these used text “borrowed” from a colleague.
  • Your old committee chair had an inside track to a funding agency that you learned about and cultivated as a post-doc.
  • You jumped into an entry tenure-track position at a different university when your first research proposal was funded, taking your funding with you.
  • At annual meetings of your learned society, you work the publisher booths at to find a sympathetic editor at a high-prestige journal.
  • You push your funded research team of grad students, post-docs, and research staff to make discoveries, or hack the data, to fit the needs of the field’s top impact-factor journal.
  • You ignore those students who don’t perform to your demands and self-funded graduate students, who should realize they don’t belong.
    You shift your lab’s research focus in response to the funder’s new five year strategic plan.
  • When you take on peer review assignments, you are particularly harsh on any work that intersects your own but doesn’t cite you, while you soaked up any useful information about their research methods and findings.
    You leverage your funded research to minimize your teaching load, and you weasel the chair into handing over your undergrad survey class to adjuncts.
  • You use the same textbook for your upper division class that you had as an undergrad.
  • You grade easy to avoid hassles with undergrads.
  • Your graduate methods seminar class promotes your own methods, and critiques others.
  • The platform of your early career wins became a launching pad to grab career advantage over your peers. You search for other early-career winners, and avoid those who aren’t.
  • You constantly eye openings for jobs at higher ranked universities. You make sure you schmooze their department heavy-weights at learned society meetings.
  • You worm your way into volunteer leadership jobs at your learned society, hoping to fast-track recognition.
  • You sit on a couple of major campus-wide strategy committees, instead of curricular or other social committees.
  • Your chancellor gives you opportunities to speak at campus events, where you highlight the research findings you’ve maneuvered to be most glamorous.
  • You mold a social media persona around popular science issues.
  • You craft a high H-index by having your grad students write review articles, which you attach your name to as first author.
  • You haven’t done fully original research or used a new methodology in five years.
  • You carefully hoard your lab’s data, and only publish in journals that do not require open data.
  • You evaluate your colleagues as winners or losers, and steer clear of the latter.
  • You talk about meritocracy in the academy, and believe that’s why you got tenure.
  • You laugh off talk of “work-life balance.” Your work is your life.
  • You fit fully into the role of “The Scientist.” As it colonizes your future, the role of “The Scientist” becomes everything you are and ever wanted. But then you realize you haven’t yet been elected a fellow of your learned society. You worry that you haven’t spent enough time cultivating connections society board members.
  • You’ve never reflected on how your need to harvest your accumulated advantage impacted the quality of your science outputs, nor the career costs of the grad-students you’ve abandoned because they didn’t follow your lead. You never stopped to count the dreams you killed along the way.
  • Because you feel you must play The Scientist continually, you are unable to play science as an infinite game. There is no joy in your work. There is a constant fear that your research results will be proven illegitimate.

A few of the the above activities might be pursued as a finite game by a scientist with an infinite mindset (See: Science is an infinite game). Every scientist is confronted by an academy infested by conflicts of interest and internally validated perverse incentives. As open science works to change the culture, scientists must still forge their careers.

For every finite-game science player who “wins,” dozens more need to “lose.” Scarcity in the system demands this. “Losers” have their careers side-tracked at some point. Their dissertations do not result in high-impact journal articles. Their post-doc opportunities (if available) become dead-ends. The funding agency denies their last-chance research proposal. They migrate away from research institutions to other jobs in and out of academia. The enthusiasm and hope they brought with them as students no longer sustains the energy they need to compete in the finite games of science. They go off and do other work. This is one reason why science loses every time finite-game science player wins.

B) The infinite player does science and plays with the role of “The Scientist.”

Freedom of thought is a fundamental academic freedom. Because science is always shared, this first freedom includes freedom of speech. Freedom is central to infinite game play, where boundaries and horizons, rules and roles, histories and futures are all in flux. Freedom of thought is the infinite-minded scientist’s chief weapon against the silence of nature. Like water, science flows against nature and finds the low spots where new knowledge lurks. Freedom interrupts scientific rigor and intention with the serendipitous discovery.

The infinite player is fully aware that a finite academy game she agrees to play carries a role she admits only to others. She is never “The Scientist” even when she plays one. She does science. She wears the white coat. She shares her findings, her data, her methods, her ideas. She teaches classes that open up infinite play to her students. She talks about awe and about doubt, about method and precision, and how doing science is something more than doing anything else; and it is more, because she plays the infinite game. And when her corner of nature’s mysteries remains silent over months and year, she persists. She knows the game will last when she is gone.

There are finite games in which she has zero interest (to the annoyance of her Chair). She sees no point in crafting a “sexy” P-hacked paper for a high-impact journal. At conferences, she spends most of her time on conversation with students at their posters, or with a few colleagues who occupy the same corner of nature as does she. Chancellors and deans fail to recruit her to campus committees. She risks tenure by focusing on her teaching and her idea of research, on her students and their needs, and on the infinite play that fills her mind day and night. If she must leave this university, she will seek out a college somewhere, with the help of her ex-students, and continue to play.

Still, the innovative thrust of her experiments, the transparent rigor of her methods, the quality of her data (which she freely shares) and the unexpected results these reveal keep getting noticed. Despite her inattention to them, her metrics are stellar. Her generosity is widespread, and well known. She simply lets go of the science goods that are most important to her, knowing that others will remember, and send her new ideas to try out. She is a giver, a genius-maker:

“In Multipliers, former Oracle executive Liz Wiseman distinguishes between geniuses and genius makers. Geniuses tend to be takers: to promote their own interests, they ‘drain intelligence, energy, and capability’ from others. Genius makers tend to be givers: they use their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capabilities’ of other people, Wiseman writes, such that ‘lightbulbs go off over people’s heads, ideas flow, and problems get solved’” (Grant, 2013).

She was denied tenure at her university for ignoring many of the hoops through which she was expected to jump; and immediately hired with tenure at a different university, on the weight and the promise of her research, and the stories about her teaching and mentoring, volunteered from her ex-students. She commonly refuses awards and honors; she calls them distractions.

Even the awe and joy of infinite game play can be easily forgotten; scientists can get lost when they play only finite games with scientific methods and organizational power. These finite games pull their logics from other finite games outside of the academy. These logics tear the academy away from the freedoms that science needs to play its infinite game. The more that the academy is trapped into finite games, the less it gains through open sharing and new opportunities for collaboration and innovation.

The Just Cause(s) of Open Science

“In life, unlike chess, the game continues after checkmate” (Isaac Asimov).

Open science exists to return the everyday life of scientists to infinite game play, to find paths to justice, and to support teaching and research opportunities for scientists everywhere on the planet, in any open institution that will house their work. Open science builds academy commons (plural) where scientists can govern themselves and their resources, maintain and care for their goods and each other, provision their work, and build an abundant future for the infinite game of science across the globe.

Playing the infinite game requires and rewards, demands and builds, encourages and exercises practical wisdom inside science. This type of caring, pragmatic wisdom can carry a scientist, a science team, a laboratory, a school, a university, an agency: any all academy organizations, toward open science, where sharing and caring a not reserved for losers. Where there are no winners, only players. And that is the whole point.

References

Grant, Adam M. Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. New York, N.Y: Viking, 2013.

Science is an infinite game you can play

You’ve played this game all your life. When did you decide to stop?

“If there are at least two players, a game exists. And there are two kinds of games: finite games and infinite games.
Finite games are played by known players. They have fixed rules. And there is an agreed-upon objective that, when reached, ends the game. Football, for example, is a finite game. The players all wear uniforms and are easily identifiable. There is a set of rules, and referees are there to enforce those rules. All the players have agreed to play by those rules and they accept penalties when they break the rules. Everyone agrees that whichever team has scored more points by the end of the set time period will be declared the winner, the game will end and everyone will go home. In finite games, there is always a beginning, a middle and an end.
“Infinite games, in contrast, are played by known and unknown players. There are no exact or agreed-upon rules. Though there may be conventions or laws that govern how the players conduct themselves, within those broad boundaries, the players can operate however they want. And if they choose to break with convention, they can. The manner in which each player chooses to play is entirely up to them. And they can change how they play the game at any time, for any reason….
Infinite games have infinite time horizons. And because there is no finish line, no practical end to the game, there is no such thing as ‘winning’ an infinite game” (Sinek, 2019).

In Finite and Infinite Games, James Carse (1987) makes a number of statements about culture and nature, and about human endeavors that include a wide range (perhaps very wide) of everyday human situations.

Here we attempt to insert science as an endeavor into the scheme Carse outlined, with the purpose of grounding the norms of science — however these are described — within science’s infinite play with nature. Of course any scientist — as a biological organism — plays in nature at the same time she plays with nature. To play with nature as a profession is a privilege scientists all share. The finite games of finance or technology might bring in more (perhaps a lot more) money, but the struggle with universal unknowns has its own rewards. The infinite game, as we will see, also ties in complexity theories, emergent systems, explanation and narrative.

Today, science is an endeavor housed in organizations where we find game logics that are mainly finite (When is the next RFP coming out? What’s your H-Score?). This circumstance is in direct conflict with research needs that must — this is the main assertion here — include and support playing the infinite game of science.

Norms point to the infinite game

The notion of the infinite game of science may seem foreign to scientists coached to win finite games to secure their careers. And yet all attempts to capture the normative culture of science hint at an underlying, non-finite game. What we find today is an academy trapped in the contradictions between these two mindsets: the poetry of discovery, the awe of nature, the joy of intellection, and the satisfactions of mentoring have been pushed aside, displaced by the rush for reputation in a now-harshly-competitive system of scarce resources and narrow opportunities.

These contradictions have been noted for decades in articles and books that contrast science’s putative norms with the observable organizational practices of science. Sociologists and critics of science practice point to the realities of doing science in today’s world. “Science claims X, but in practice we find Y.” Ziman (2002) makes this contrast more than seventy times. These observations now share the discourse with a chorus of observations about “bad science:” unreproducible findings, plagiarized and repetitive science articles, ersatz statistics (p-hacking, etc.), systemic biases and conflicts of interest in funding and advancement, public distrust of science findings, and a profiteering publishing industry.

The reality of doing science today seems fundamentally out of step with how good science needs to happen. “Real science” is still distinguished by normative behaviors and values that are regularly called upon to counter deviation into “bad science” (See: Zimring 2019 <https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/were-incentivizing-bad-science/> Retrieved November 8, 2019). But when the incentives are perverse and pervasive, resistance is a challenge that overlays and undermines the challenges of doing infinite-game science. So, what happens when the reality of being a scientist fails to support “real science”?

Doing the right science or doing science right?

“When you rely on incentives, you undermine virtues. Then when you discover that you actually need people who want to do the right thing, those people don’t exist because you’ve crushed anyone’s desire to do the right thing with all these incentives” (Barry Schwartz in Zetter, 2009 <https://www.wired.com/2009/02/ted-barry-schwa/> Retrieved 12/16/19).

Much of the “How” science is played as an infinite game is discussed within the philosophy of science, and the “What” of science fills books in the sociology of science. The infinite game of science explores the “Why” and the also the “just causes” (Sinek, 2019) of science. The “Why” brings us a narrative of science up until this moment, which illuminates its horizon. Science’s just causes point us at the thousands of mysteries, the unknowns that scientists confront today; each mystery offers a bit of new knowledge to be discovered, and the benefits of new understanding. Every unknown also carries a moral load, and the need for judgement in pursuit of justice (more about this below), given that there are many consequences to new knowledge.

Mindsets and practices

Finite and Infinite Games goes into great detail to expose the two mindsets: finite and infinite. These are fundamentally different, and in ways that illuminate many of the issues plaguing the academy today. Here we note only a few key points. First, finite players (players with a finite mindset) play their roles in full seriousness, acquiring their parts as actual and necessary: even when they are always fully free to step out of their parts. They need to forget this freedom in order to play to win. This is really important to keep in mind: finite game players assume their roles as essential parts of who they are, even though they always have the freedom to abandon their role. This mindset lards the role of “scientist” with unnecessary seriousness.

On the other hand, players in an infinite game play with the rules, instead of assuming roles. These rules are constantly changing as players move the boundaries of the game. Infinite games are rule-creating games. The players do not need to accept a set of rules to play. Without stable rules, roles make no sense. Best practices do not apply. Every new experiment opens up its own horizon. In terms of complexity theory, the infinite game demands that you probe, sense and respond (Laloux, 2014, Kurtz and Snowden, 2003) each time you play.

When an infinite player (someone with an infinite mindset) plays a finite game within the infinite game, they do so fully understanding they are simply acting their role, and that they have the freedom to walk away. Yet they still have the capacity to play any finite game to its limit. They can accept the rules in order to play. However, winning or losing has no meaning for them. This may mean they play with greater freedom and abandon, improving their chance of winning.

To remind scientists that their research is an infinite game is to reconnect them to the “one long experiment” (Martin, 1998) that is science. Recent organizational management theories (Sinek, 2019) have put infinite game play and sense-making for complexity (Snowden, 2002; Kurtz and Snowden, 2003; Ito and Howe, 2016) at the center of their recommendations for 21st Century organizational governance. Getting good in the infinite game of science could also build skills that scientists can use to govern their labs, universities, and agencies.

This handbook will help you create new practices that can recenter your university’s values and vision around infinite game play as a strategy for long-term success. Open science is a cultural platform that will connect infinite game players across the globe. You and your organization can join this, or you can continue to play the same bullshit “excellence” games (Moore, et al, 2017; also Neylon[Retrieved Feb. 7, 2020]) you take far too seriously today. And have more fun in your research too.

Science is a war with one long battle

Science, the infinite game, was there with Aristotle and Plato, Bacon and Galileo. With Neuton and Boyle, Einstein and Feynman. And now here, this very moment, with every scientist in and out of the academy. The infinite game of science lies beneath the norms that Merton and others have used to delineate science’s core ethos. The infinite game stands behind every experimental hypothesis and laboratory method. Every time a scientist battles with some mystery of nature, the infinite game continues.

Science works toward horizons and not within boundaries. Scientists see boundaries around them and laugh as they violate these. They go beyond. Any scientist can change the horizon of science and modify the rules of science (for example, by improving a method of observation). Each change in the horizon of science changes the horizon of every scientist.

“The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt” (Feynman, et al, 2005).

The scientist eats unknowns, and is never full. She sweats doubt. The products of science are not science. These can be destroyed or forgotten and science will continue. Science means challenging the known. Scientists understand how little science knows; that the mysteries they face are mighty. Each scientist picks her own mystery, her own just cause to pursue.

“The earth’s history has been only long experiment, poorly constrained in a reductionist’s eyes. How impoverished the earth would be if had been otherwise” (Martin, 1998).

Science is nature made into poetry

No single scientist speaks for science. No scientist speaks for nature. The speech given by the award winner at the annual convention is not any more scientific than the poster presented by the graduate student. The questions of a student can negate an entire history of discovery.

Unlike the history of society where politics is theatrical and works to close its history (against culture, which keeps this open), the history of science is always dramatic. It is formed by events that must repeat themselves again and again while remaining open to failure, open to a moving horizon that might, and probably will, change and render them false. After that, they join the past history of science and are merely theatrical. One can repeat a failed experiment only as historical theater. The science present moves on in dramatic fashion.

The goods of science inform the knowledge inventory of the world within which science is played. They push science to remake its horizons. They are not unimportant to science but they are not science in the infinite game. Finite-science players want to own these products, in order to garland themselves with prizes. Prized science goods require durability for the value of their prizes to endure. Finite-science players choose to defend their own goods by silencing others and gathering supporters. They seek a past that is closed and known, with their own goods at its front end.

“One must keep in mind that senior faculty probably hold their current positions through their success in the game, which may or may not have been achieved by using the most ethical ways” (Chapman C.A., et al, 2019).

Infinite science players — who know their own research best — interrogate their own findings in search of a larger knowledge horizon. They push the game forward and their egos to the side. They open up to collaborations and seek out conversations with those who disagree with their findings.

Prizes bind science to a known past. This past is carried by science institutions, such as those learned societies that sponsor prizes. These societies also need to endure so that the prizes of finite-science players retain their value. Prize winners and “fellows” carry the weight if ensuring the society persists, warranting the currency of their prizes. However, the continuity of science is not based on an attachment to its past or even it current goods — on the closing of its history — but rather, on a continual openness to surprise, to experiment (Schulz, 2011). Science is based on the nearly universal ephemerality of its findings. Science has always been the child of an open history that will never close.

“[W]hat resounds most deeply in the life of Copernicus is the journey that made knowledge possible and not the knowledge that made the journey successful” (Carse).

Science doesn’t just have a culture. Science also is culture (in Carse’s sense). Like any culture, science is “itself a poiesis, all of its participants are poietai — inventors, makers, artists, storytellers, mythologists. They are not, however, makers of actualities, but makers of possibilities. The creativity of [science] has no outcome, no conclusion” (Carse; paraphrase).

Scientists are ImagiNatives. Poets of the natural world. Makers of possibilities. “It’s been said that science fiction and fantasy are two different things: science fiction, the improbable made possible; fantasy, the impossible made probable” (Rod Serling,“The Fugitive”. The Twilight Zone. Season 3. Episode 25. March 9, 1962. CBS.) Science is nature made into poetry.

“The physicist who sees speaks physics with us, inviting us to see that the things we thought were there are not things at all. By learning new limitations from such a person, we learn not only what to look for with them but also how to see the way we use limitations. A physics so taught becomes poiesis” (Carse).

You cannot do science alone in isolation; do science only in your own mind. This does not mean that you cannot be solitary in your imagination, but only that science happens when you share this with at least one other person. A poet who does not speak has no poetry to speak of. Science happens between and among infinite game players.

The infinite play of science allows no personal power or authority. In a finite game, power always requires opposition and an audience. Neither is available within science. In finite games, winning silences the loser. The personal power that a title conveys; this authority means nothing to science, and usually far too much for scientists. Competition feeds arbitrary power in the academy and defeats science itself, silencing the many to praise the few.

Finite games of prestige in the academy are failings of the academy. Finite games of personal influence and authority contradict the inherent authority of science methods. Scientists are known by their names, not their titles. If your method is transparent and well-founded, your science goods need no amplification beyond their public sharing. The audience that power seeks is not found in science. An infinite game allows no audience. There is no vote that can elevate one science good above another.

Science does not belong to any one society. Science flows across the globe. Change for science has no location, it is always everywhere. Change is always surprising, and so never a surprise. “To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated” (Carse). To invite and welcome surprise is to do science. Science creates its activities through fluid consensus, not from any established doctrine, but in response to surprises that happen whenever science moves its horizon.

“[As it is in nature, so] also in [science]. Infinite players understand that the vigor of [science] has to do with the variety of its sources, the differences within itself. The unique and the surprising are not suppressed in some persons for the strength of others. The genius in you stimulates the genius in me” (paraphrase: Carse).

Every science effort begins and ends in surprise. Because the next instant of knowing is always open, the moment of discovery is always surprising. This is a source of joy for the scientist. If the object of research were already known or fully predictable, the research is unnecessary. Reproducibility means that the same effort must result in the same surprise. The first effort exposes the scientist to this surprise. The second time gifts this surprise to science.

In the infinite game, science invests more authority on the rigor of its methods than it does in the sagacity of its practitioners. The results of well-constructed experiments are all discoveries, even when the results are null. Each experiment extends the horizon of the game.

Who wants yesterday’s findings?

The final page of science will never be written. A new finding is lightly penciled in after the previous paragraph on the current page. Every infinite player brings their own eraser to this book. Chapters long settled and well considered can be erased in a single day. That is a joy for science. New pages open up then. New horizons emerge. The game accelerates. More players find ways to add new paragraphs to this ledger. Ever since Bacon, yesterday’s findings hold less knowledge than tomorrow’s.

Scientific surprise is mainly retold as serendipity. Serendipity, the unexpected confluence of curiosity and sagacity, is just another way of announcing that scientists are playing the infinite game.

“The paradox in our relation to nature is that the more deeply [science] respects the indifference of nature, the more creatively it will call upon its own spontaneity in response. The more clearly we remind ourselves that we can have no unnatural influence on nature, the more our [science] will embody a freedom to embrace surprise and unpredictability” (paraphrase) Carse.

What is real science again?

“The notion that academic scientists have to be humble and disinterested… seems to contradict all our impressions of the research world. Scientists are usually passionate advocates of their own ideas, and often extremely vain” (Ziman, 2002).

We have all read studies and stories of “actual” science that highlight how scientists live and work in the “real world.” Today, scientists labor within the pragmatic circumstances of the increasingly neo-liberal academy — surrounded by an increasingly neo-liberal global economy: a world of intense competition for fame and funding, a space of accumulated advantages for a few, and increasing precarity for the rest. Yet the moments of science, the methodic but often serendipitous event of discovery, yank the scientist back into a different “real” — the real task of uncovering new knowledge about the actual “real world” — the natural universe. To do science is to play an infinite game with nature.

References

Carse, James P. Finite and Infinite Games. Ballantine Books, 1987.

Chapman, Colin A., Júlio César Bicca-Marques, Sébastien Calvignac-Spencer, Pengfei Fan, Peter J. Fashing, Jan Gogarten, Songtao Guo, et al. “Games Academics Play and Their Consequences: How Authorship, h -Index and Journal Impact Factors Are Shaping the Future of Academia.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 286, no. 1916 (December 4, 2019): 20192047. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2019.2047.

Feynman, R.P., J. Robbins, H. Sturman, and A. Löhnberg,. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Nieuw Amsterdam, 2005.

Ito, Joi, and Jeff Howe. Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future. Grand Central Publishing, 2016.

Kurtz, Cynthia F, and David J Snowden. “The New Dynamics of Strategy: Sense-Making in a Complex and Complicated World.” IBM Systems Journal 42, no. 3 (2003): 462–483.

Laloux, Frederic. Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the next Stage in Human Consciousness. Nelson Parker, 2014.

Martin, Ronald E. One Long Experiment: Scale and Process in Earth History. Columbia University Press, 1998.

Moore, S., C. Neylon, M.P. Eve, D.P. O’Donnell, and D Pattinson. “‘Excellence R Us’: University Research and the Fetishisation of Excellence.” Palgrave Communications 3 (2017): 16105.

Schulz, Kathryn. Being wrong: Adventures in the margin of error. Granta Books, 2011.

Sinek, Simon. The Infinite Game. New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2019.

Snowden, David. “Complex Acts of Knowing: Paradox and Descriptive Self-Awareness.” Journal of Knowledge Management 6, no. 2 (2002): 100–111.

Ziman, John. Real Science: What It Is and What It Means. Cambridge University Press, 2002.